Materialism, Dualism, Buddhism

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths - what can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
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Re: Materialism, Dualism, Buddhism

Post by Nyana » Fri Jul 16, 2010 8:14 am

EricJ wrote:However, I still feel as if the passages I quoted are relevant to this topic and clearly demonstrate what is wrong with Bhikkhu Bodhi's essay on Mahayana/Madhyamaka thought. These passages certainly helped me clarify some concepts.
Hi Eric,

That's all to the good.
EricJ wrote:Rather, it is experienced as it is, without reference to the conventional experience of samsara which could act as an oppositional concept.
I think Nāgārjuna would agree with this.

All the best,


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Re: Materialism, Dualism, Buddhism

Post by Nyana » Fri Jul 16, 2010 9:49 am

Hi all,

In his paper Dhamma and Non-duality Ven. Bodhi begins his critique of the Mahāyāna schools by asserting that:
  • The Mahayana schools, despite their great differences, concur in upholding a thesis that, from the Theravada point of view, borders on the outrageous. This is the claim that there is no ultimate difference between samsara and Nirvana, defilement and purity, ignorance and enlightenment.
This is simply an inaccurate appraisal of the two Indian Mahāyāna traditions (i.e. Mādhyamaka and Yogācāra). It is one thing to understand that saṃsāra and nirvāna are not ultimately established as independent ontological realities, and are therefore nominal designations (prajñapti); it is quite another to phrase it in terms implying an absolute unity, as Ven. Bodhi does, and then draw out the unwanted consequences of this characterture.

As the 8th century Indian mādhyamika Kamalaśīla states in his Bhāvanākrama-s, awakening depends upon differentiating and engaging in specific, unerring, and complete causes and conditions:
  • It is impossible for omniscience [i.e. enlightenment] to arise without causes since this would entail the absurd consequence whereby everyone could be omniscient all the time. If it could arise independently, it could exist everywhere without obstructions, and again everybody would be omniscient. Moreover, all functional things depend exclusively on causes because they only occur for certain persons at certain times. And so, because omniscience does not arise for everybody everywhere at all times, it most certainly depends upon causes and conditions. Also, from among those causes and conditions, one should rely on unerring and complete causes.
There is no reification of an “ultimate” in Indian Mādhyamaka and Yogācāra. And the path structure of these two systems necessitate an accurate differentiation of defilement and purity, ignorance and enlightenment. There is no path without such differentiation.

Moreover, Ven. Bodhi’s assumption that the transcendence of dualities “from the Theravāda point of view, borders on the outrageous” and that according to the Theravāda view “wisdom must respect phenomena in their precise particularity” is also questionable. For example, in The Mind Stilled Ven. Ñāṇananda, a Theravāda bhikkhu, states:
  • The transcendence of relativity involves freedom from the duality in worldly concepts such as 'good' and 'evil'. The concept of a 'farther shore' stands relative to the concept of a 'hither shore'. The point of these discourses is to indicate that there is a freedom from worldly conceptual proliferations based on duality and relativity.
And in his Concept and Reality (pp. 55–56), Ven. Ñāṇananda says:
  • Concepts – be they material or spiritual, worldly or transcendental – are not worthy of being grasped dogmatically. They are not to be treated as ultimate categories and are to be discarded in the course of the spiritual endeavour.... That the emancipated sage (muni) no longer clings even to such concepts as “nibbāna” or “detachment” (virāga) is clearly indicated in the following verse of the Sutta Nipāta:

    “For the Brahmin (the Muni) who has transcended all bounds, there is nothing that is grasped by knowing or by seeing. He is neither attached to attachment nor is he attached to detachment. In this world, he has grasped nothing as the highest.” [Sn 795]
Ven. Bodhi repeatedly casts the goal of “the non-dual systems” in terms of a realization of a “final unity,” a “metaphysical unity,” an “all-embracing absolute,” an “all-embracing identification with the All,” and an “absolute or fundamental ground.” For example:
  • For those of such a bent, the dissolution of dualities in a final unity will always appear more profound and complete.... For the non-dual systems, all dualities are finally transcended in the realization of the non-dual reality, the Absolute or fundamental ground.
For the Indian Mahāyāna schools this is incorrect. There is no “final unity” or “absolute or fundamental ground” to be realized in either of the two Indian Mahāyāna traditions (i.e. Mādhyamaka and Yogācāra). In both traditions a mindstream is designated as an individual momentary continuum, and this pertains to buddhas as well as deluded sentient beings.

Ven. Bodhi goes on to opine that:
  • Since, for the non-dual systems, distinctions are ultimately unreal, meditation practice is not explicitly oriented toward the removal of mental defilements and the cultivation of virtuous states of mind.
Also incorrect. Both Mahāyāna Mādhyamaka and Yogācāra path structures involve employing all the necessary causes and conditions for the attainment of awakening. This means engaging all thirty-seven factors of awakening, which includes penetrating the four noble truths upon attaining the path of seeing. In addition, for the boddhisattva this necessarily involves mastering not only the four dhyāna-s, but also the five mundane higher gnoses, the four formless attainments, and the cessation attainment. This is because the bodhisattva has to develop experiential knowledge of all paths in order to eventually instruct others, and also because the bodhisattva’s aspiration is to attain the perfect awakening of a buddha, which includes mastery of all meditative attainments. To suggest that one can penetrate the four noble truths and master all of these meditative attainments and eventually realize full awakening without the “removal of mental defilements and the cultivation of virtuous states of mind” is unsustainable.

That mastery of the dhyāna-s, etc., was of significant importance from the beginnings of the Mahāyāna is evident from reading the early Mahāyāna sūtra-s, which go to some length to praise forest seclusion and solitude. And that these passages remained in high esteem throughout the Indian Mahāyāna traditions can be seen from the fact that they were still being quoted in practice texts by the likes of Śāntideva and Vimalamitra many centuries later.

Ven. Bodhi also states that:
  • Nibbana, even in the early texts, is definitely cast as an ultimate reality and not merely as an ethical or psychological state....
Here we get a whiff of why the Mahāyāna Mādhyamaka and Yogācāra systems are so objectionable to Ven. Bodhi’s realist abhidhammika sensibilities. For Ven. Bodhi nibbāna is necessarily an “ultimate reality” independent of cognition. Elsewhere Ven. Bodhi expands on his view of this matter, which further demonstrates a conflation of epistemology and ontology:
  • Nibbana is not only the destruction of defilements and the end of samsara but a reality transcendent to the entire world of mundane experience, a reality transcendent to all the realms of phenomenal existence....

    [T]he Nibbana element remains the same, no matter whether many or few people attain Nibbana....

    Nibbana is an actual reality and not the mere destruction of defilements or the cessation of existence. Nibbana is unconditioned, without any origination and is timeless.
Remedying this confusion and conflation of the epistemological and ontological was one of Nāgārjuna’s primary concerns. And not only Nāgārjuna. Throughout The Mind Stilled as well as his other writings, Ven. Ñāṇananda has addressed this issue. For example:
  • To project Nibbāna into a distance and to hope that craving will be destroyed only on seeing it, is something like trying to build a staircase to a palace one cannot yet see. In fact this is a simile which the Buddha had used in his criticism of the Brahmin's point of view....

    Lust, hate, delusion - all these are fires. Therefore Nibbāna may be best rendered by the word extinction. When once the fires are extinguished, what more is needed? But unfortunately Venerable Buddhaghosa was not prepared to appreciate this point of view. In his Visuddhimagga as well as in the commentaries Sāratthappakāsinī and Sammohavinodanī, he gives a long discussion on Nibbāna in the form of an argument with an imaginary heretic. Some of his arguments are not in keeping with either the letter or the spirit of the Dhamma.

    First of all he gets the heretic to put forward the idea that the destruction of lust, hate and delusion is Nibbāna. Actually the heretic is simply quoting the Buddha word, for in the Nibbānasutta of the Asaṅkhatasaṃyutta the destruction of lust, hate and delusion is called Nibbāna: Rāgakkhayo, dosakkhayo, mohakkhayo - idaṃ vuccati nibbānaṃ.

    The words rāgakkhaya, dosakkhaya and mohakkhaya together form a synonym of Nibbāna, but the commentator interprets it as three synonyms. Then he argues out with the imaginary heretic that if Nibbāna is the extinguishing of lust it is something common even to the animals, for they also extinguish their fires of lust through enjoyment of the corresponding objects of sense. This argument ignores the deeper sense of the word extinction, as it is found in the Dhamma....

    It seems that the deeper implications of the word Nibbāna have been obscured by a set of arguments which are rather misleading....

    More often than otherwise, commentarial interpretations of Nibbāna leave room for some subtle craving for existence, bhavataṇhā.... It conjures up a place where there is no sun and no moon, a place that is not a place. Such confounding trends have crept in probably due to the very depth of this Dhamma.
All the best,


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Re: Materialism, Dualism, Buddhism

Post by Sobeh » Fri Jul 16, 2010 3:35 pm


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Re: Materialism, Dualism, Buddhism

Post by Shonin » Fri Jul 16, 2010 4:22 pm

Yes - very well argued. :anjali:

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Re: Materialism, Dualism, Buddhism

Post by EricJ » Fri Jul 16, 2010 7:09 pm

I found a sutta which seems related to this topic. At first it seems to be speaking specifically about trying to achieve spiritual merit or purity through external actions (seeing 'the pure one,' rituals and rites, etc.), but it goes beyond that and seems to imply that the experience of bodhi is beyond any sort identification or objectification. I will post both the Ireland and Thanissaro translations because I don't know which one is more accurate.
Suddhatthaka Sutta, Sutta Nipata 4.4, Ireland wrote:"'Here I see one who is pure, entirely free of sickness. By seeing him a man may attain to purity!'

"Convinced of that and thinking it 'the highest,' he believes it to be knowledge when he contemplates 'the pure one.'[1] But if by sights man can gain purification or if through such knowledge he could leave suffering behind, then, one who still has attachments could be purified by another.[2] However, this is merely the opinion of those who so assert.

"The (true) brahmana[3] has said one is not purified by another, nor by what is seen, heard or perceived (by the other senses), nor, by the performance of ritual observances. He (the true brahmana) is not defiled by merit or demerit. Having given up what he had (previously) grasped at, he no longer engages in producing (any kamma). Having left a former (object) they attach themselves to another, dominated by craving they do not go beyond attachment. They reject and seize, like a monkey letting go of a branch to take hold of another.

"A person having undertaken a ritual act goes this way and that, fettered by his senses. But one with a wide wisdom, having understood and gone into the Dhamma with his experience, does not go this way and that. For a person indifferent towards all conditions, whatever is seen, heard or cognized, he is one who sees it as it really is and lives with clarity (of mind). With what could he be identified in the world?

"They do not speculate nor pursue (any notion), they do not claim perfect purity. Loosening the knot (of clinging) with which they are bound, they do not have longing anywhere in the world. The (true) brahmana who has gone beyond limitations, having understood and seen there is no longer any assumption for him, he is neither disturbed by lust nor agitated by revulsion. For him there is nothing upheld as 'the highest.'"

1. This refers to the old Indian belief in "auspicious sights" (dittha-mangala), the belief that by merely beholding something or someone regarded as a holy object or person, purity, or whatever else is desired, may be gained.
2. By another method, other than that of the Noble Eightfold Path (Comy.); but it could also mean, "by the sight of another person."
3. I.e., the Buddha.
Suddhatthaka Sutta, Sutta Nipata 4.4, Thanissaro wrote:"I see the pure, the supreme,
free from disease.
It's in connection
with what's seen
that a person's purity

Understanding thus,
having known the "supreme,"
& remaining focused
on purity,
one falls back on that knowledge.
If it's in connection
with what is seen
that a person's purity is,
or if stress is abandoned
in connection with knowledge,
then a person with acquisitions
is purified
in connection with something else,[2]
for his view betrays that
in the way he asserts it.

No brahman[3]
says purity
comes in connection
with anything else.
Unsmeared with regard
to what's seen, heard, sensed,
precepts or practices,
merit or evil,
not creating
anything here,
he's let go
of what he had embraced.[4]

Abandoning what's first,
they depend on what's next.[5]
Following distraction,
they don't cross over attachment.
They embrace & reject
— like a monkey releasing a branch
to seize at another[6] —
a person undertaking practices on his own,
goes high & low,
latched onto perception.
But having clearly known
through vedas,[7] having encountered
the Dhamma,
one of profound discernment
doesn't go
high & low.

He's enemy-free[8]
with regard to all things
seen, heard, or sensed.
By whom, with what,[9]
should he
be pigeonholed
here in the world?
— one who has seen in this way,
who goes around

They don't conjure, don't yearn,
don't proclaim "utter purity."
Untying the tied-up knot of grasping,
they don't form a desire for
at all in the world.

The brahman
gone beyond territories,[11]
has nothing that
— on knowing or seeing —
he's grasped.
Unimpassionate for passion,
not impassioned for dis-,[12]
he has nothing here
that he's grasped as supreme.
1. An ancient Indian belief, dating back to the Vedas, was that the sight of certain things or beings was believed to purify. Thus "in connection with what's seen" here means both that purity is brought about by means of seeing such a sight, and that one's purity is measured in terms of having such a sight. This belief survives today in the practice of darshan.
2. In other words, if purity were simply a matter of seeing or knowing something, a person could be pure in this sense and yet still have acquisitions (= defilements), which would not be true purity.
3. "Brahman" in the Buddhist sense, i.e., a person born in any caste who has become an arahant.
4. Lines such as this may have been the source of the confusion in the different recensions of the Canon — and in Nd.I — as to whether the poems in this vagga are concerned with letting go of views that have been embraced (atta) or of self (attaa). The compound here, attañjaho, read on its own, could be read either as "he's let go of what has been embraced" or "he's let go of self." However, the following image of a monkey seizing and releasing branches as it moves from tree to tree reinforces the interpretation that the first interpretation is the correct one.
5. Nd.I: Leaving one teacher and going to another; leaving one teaching and going to another. This phrase may also refer to the mind's tendency to leave one craving to go to another.
6. "Like a monkey releasing a branch to seize at another" — an interesting example of a whole phrase that functions as a "lamp," i.e., modifying both the phrase before it and the phrase after it.
7. Vedas — Just as the word "brahman" is used in a Buddhist sense above, here the word veda is given a Buddhist sense. According to the Commentary, in this context it means the knowledge accompanying four transcendent paths: the paths to stream-entry, once-returning, non-returning, and arahantship.
8. Nd.I: The enemies here are the armies of Mara — all unskillful mental qualities. For a detailed inventory of the armies of Mara, see Sn 3.2.
9. By whom, with what — two meanings of the one Pali word, kena.
10. Nd.I: "Open" means having a mind not covered or concealed by craving, defilement, or ignorance. This image is used in Ud 5.5. It is in contrast to the image discussed in note 1 to Sn 4.2. An alternative meaning here might be having one's eyes open.
11. Nd.I: "Territories" = the ten fetters (samyojana) and seven obsessions (anusaya).
12. Nd.I: "Passion" = sensuality; "dispassion" = the jhana states that bring about dispassion for sensuality.

I found the statement that those who have "gone into the Dhamma not claim perfect purity" especially interesting and relevant to this topic.

I do not want my house to be walled in on sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.- Gandhi

With persistence aroused for the highest goal's attainment, with mind unsmeared, not lazy in action, firm in effort, with steadfastness & strength arisen, wander alone like a rhinoceros.

Not neglecting seclusion, absorption, constantly living the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma, comprehending the danger in states of becoming, wander alone like a rhinoceros.
- Snp. 1.3

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Re: Materialism, Dualism, Buddhism

Post by smokey » Sat Jul 17, 2010 11:24 am

It is quite simple to disapprove materialism. Be mindful of your thoughts and tell me is the experience of thoughts material? Be mindful of your perceptions, is the experience material? The same applies to everything a human being experiences, to all five khandas/skandhas: Consciousness, Mental Formations/Volition, Perception, Feeling/Sensation and Body. For an example, when you make a choice, that is, when you will something, is the experience of that material? It is a simple test and yet so many people are blind to it that everything that a human being experiences is immaterial and most people on this world believe in materialism.

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Re: Materialism, Dualism, Buddhism

Post by Kenshou » Sat Jul 17, 2010 5:58 pm

I'm not so sure it's that simple. I believe that we are able to tell, by looking at what is physically going on in the brain, what sorts of subjective experiences are going on, to some degree. In that way and in that it is dependent upon external objects, experience undeniably has at least some grounding in the physical. Mentality is certainly quite connected to physicality and is not purely immaterial.

But then, when you start getting into questions like "do experiences "exist", what are they made of?" we're getting into some really hard questions that I'm not sure even have answers... I'm not even sure if "exist" applies.

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Re: Materialism, Dualism, Buddhism

Post by Shonin » Sun Jul 18, 2010 12:14 am

The mental and the physical are no doubt strongly correlated. Instead of insisting 'this one is real, the other one is an illusion' and arguing about which is the real one, you can look at it this way: from one side (the outside) it appears like this (physical phenomena), from another side (the inside) it appears like this (mental phenomena).

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Re: Materialism, Dualism, Buddhism

Post by Lazy_eye » Sun Jul 18, 2010 6:08 am


I agree that your post is very convincing. Glad to see the argument brought out in fuller detail. As a new student of both traditions, I've found your posts informative and helpful, so thanks Bartleby :)
That mastery of the dhyāna-s, etc., was of significant importance from the beginnings of the Mahāyāna is evident from reading the early Mahāyāna sūtra-s, which go to some length to praise forest seclusion and solitude. And that these passages remained in high esteem throughout the Indian Mahāyāna traditions can be seen from the fact that they were still being quoted in practice texts by the likes of Śāntideva and Vimalamitra many centuries later.
Reminds me of a similar emphasis in Śramaṇa Zhiyi's "Essentials of Samatha, Vipassana and Dhyana Meditation" which Ven Huifeng introduced me to a while back. Lots of talk about seclusion as a condition for meditative attainment. I'm sure you're familiar with this already. ... _Intro.pdf" onclick=";return false;

All best,


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Re: Materialism, Dualism, Buddhism

Post by Nyana » Mon Jul 19, 2010 11:23 am

Lazy_eye wrote:Reminds me of a similar emphasis in Śramaṇa Zhiyi's "Essentials of Samatha, Vipassana and Dhyana Meditation" which Ven Huifeng introduced me to a while back. Lots of talk about seclusion as a condition for meditative attainment. I'm sure you're familiar with this already.
Hi LE,

Yeah, Zhiyi certainly emphasized dhyāna as well as ethical conduct (śīla), etc. For the development of dhyāna, he suggested a 90 day period of practicing “constantly-sitting samādhi.” His Mohe Zhiguan describes the 90 day practice period:
  • One should constantly sit and should avoid walking, standing, or lying down. Although it is possible [to do this practice] in a place with other people, it is better to be alone. Sit alone in a quiet room, or in an open and peaceful place [outside], apart from all the tumult and clamor [of daily life]. Sit on a coarse cot, without any other seats [or other clutter] by your side. Ninety days make up one period. Sit properly in a cross-legged position, with your neck and backbone perfectly straight; do not move or waver or stoop or lean on anything. While sitting, vow to yourself that your ribs will not [so much as] touch the poles, let alone that you would sprawl [face-up] like a corpse, prance about, or stand up, except for walking meditation, eating, and going to the toilet. Face in the direction of a single Buddha [image], sitting erect face to face [with the Buddha], continuously for a fixed time without faltering.

    “Just sitting” 専坐 is what should be done, and one should not do anything that hinders this purpose. Do not deceive the Buddha; do not burden your mind [with extraneous distractions]; do not fool [other] sentient beings.
All the best,


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